The Justice Department has secured a $9 million settlement with Ameris Bank over allegations that it avoided underwriting mortgages in predominately Black and Latino communities in Jacksonville, Florida, and discouraged people there from getting home loans.
The bank denied violating fair lending laws and said it wanted to avoid litigation by agreeing to the deal, which does not include civil monetary penalties.
It's the latest settlement over a practice known as redlining, which the Biden administration is tackling through a new task force that earlier this year reached the largest agreement of its kind in the department's history.
Between 2016 and 2021, the Atlanta-based Ameris Bank's home lending was focused disproportionately on mostly white areas of Jacksonville while other banks approved loans at three times the rate Ameris did, the government said.
The bank has never operated a branch in a majority Black and Hispanic neighborhood, and in one-third of those areas it did not receive a single application over the six-year period, even though other banks did, Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
"Redlining has a significant impact on the health and wealth of these communities. Homeownership has been one of the most effective ways that Americans have built wealth in our country. When families can't access credit to achieve homeownership, they lose an opportunity to share in this country's prosperity," Garland said at a news conference in Jacksonville announcing the settlement.
CEO Palmer Proctor of Ameris Bank, which federal officials say has nearly $25 billion in assets and operates in nine states across the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, said in a statement, "We strongly disagree with any suggestion that we have engaged in discriminatory conduct." Proctor said the bank cooperated with the investigation and reached the agreement in part "because we share the Department's goal of expanding access to homeownership in underserved areas."
Garland has prioritized civil rights prosecutions since becoming attorney general in 2021, and the current administration has put a higher priority on redlining cases than before. The anti-redlining effort has now secured $107 million in relief, including the Ameris settlement, which a judge must approve.
A $31 million settlement with Los Angeles-based City National in January was the largest for the department.
The practice of redlining has continued across the country and the long-term effects are still felt today, despite a half-century of laws designed to combat it. Homes in historically redlined communities are still worth less than homes elsewhere, and a Black family's average net worth is a fraction of a typical white household's.
The Ameris case is the first brought by the department in Florida, said Roger Handberg, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida. "For far too long, redlining has negatively impacted communities of color across our country," he said.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said combating redlining "is one of the most important strategies for ensuring equal economic opportunity today."
Ameris Bank will invest $7.5 million in a loan subsidy fund made available to people in majority-minority neighborhoods under the settlement and spend a total of $1.5 million on outreach and community partnerships, as well as open a new branch in those neighborhoods, along with other requirements as part of the settlement.
Associated Press writer Ken Sweet in New York contributed to this report.
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